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Rangers: More Than A Club?

More Than A Club. That is what the Govan Stand proclaimed in section-high lettering when Rangers played Barcelona in a Champion League group stage game in 2007. On this occasion, the statement was made partly in reflection of the motto of our esteemed guests. Barcelona are famously the sporting embodiment of the Catalan nation and the words concisely acknowledge this historic intertwining of club, people and nation. Celtic have made similar claims to be more than just a football club. There is a degree of truth in this and it is certainly the case that Celtic are the most obvious manifestation of Irish culture and identity in contemporary Scotland-even while some of the club’s fans maintain that Irishness isn’t recognised by Scottish society. Celtic have a morally infused narrative that is entwined with the socio-economic progress of a community. The Celtic story, and related identities and values, has taken on the hardened armour of dogma. They seem to be impervious to revision despite sometimes bearing little or no resemblance to the words or deeds of those associated with the club. One Celtic fan seemed to be aware of this when he wrote recently in the football magazine When Saturday Comes: ‘Even Celtic supporters-some of us, anyway-are often irritated by the self-mythologizing flannel regularly parped out by sections of the club’s fanbase.’ While probably agreeing with this assessment, I think some Rangers fans secretly desire a narrative that is as simple and as easy to promote. Rangers’ claim to be more than a club is harder to articulate but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is any less valid.

Peel back the layers and I think this issue lies at the core of a number of recent debates from the merits of a fans’ charter to the rights and wrongs of singing The Billy Boys. Whether we know it or not, we are often trying to define or redefine our position in relation to this issue. Celtic’s values come from a foundation story but ours are derived from a number of sources and were accumulated over time. If I had to select the two-most important sources for the values often identified as ‘Rangers values’ then I would choose Bill Struth and an idealised version of working-class Scotland. The values attributed to the teams Struth put on the park overlap in significant ways with the values attributed to the industrial communities which provided the fans on the terraces. Professor David Kinnon touched on this when he argued: ‘Agreement on the values which are Rangers values, the values which helped restore the beating heart, is essential. Integrity, respect, justice for others, fairness in competition and sheer commitment are values which Mr Struth would recognise.’ Colin Foster, in an article discussing the club’s ethos, listed courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty and respect for others. The centrality of Struth as a bestower of values has been testified to by the prominence of his statements in the past year. Despite not being acknowledged as such, there was an unspoken agreement that this was an attempt return to the source in a time of crisis. I think most fans understood what was implied by printing his words on the front page of the programme for the first game following the announcement of administration. Linked to this, the conduct of former owners was damned not simply because it was financially ruinous but because it had sinned against the same set of abstract Rangers values that were then reasserted as a result.

The theme for the most recent issue of Seventy2 magazine was famous Rangers captains. A number of quotes from this issue might serve to illustrate how our common language is suffused with references to certain values:

He [Tom Vallance] above most laid the foundations at Fleshers’ Haugh upon which our club was built. These consisted of hard-work, fair play and honesty.

‘John Greig epitomised everything that I wanted in a Rangers captain; his never say die attitude, his stature on the pitch, his consistency of performance’.

On Richard Gough: ‘he encapsulated all the qualities I want to see in a Rangers captain: he is honest, articulate, well mannered, determined and above all else a winner.’

The most fundamental question that needs to be asked about Rangers values in this context is ‘what makes them unique’? If they make up the foundation that elevates us above most other club’s then they deserve to be scrutinised or we risk collapsing in a heap. Is it the combination of values? Possibly, but this can’t be argued with any confidence when there isn’t substantial and explicit agreement on what they are. A case might be made for the source of the values but I would argue this only strengthens the case for them to be stated clearly given Struth departed 59 years ago and the community mentioned above exists only in memory and imagination. If Rangers fans agree on the importance of certain values then what is to be lost by setting them out in a document? I would contend that the very act of doing so would, in itself, be evidence of the sheer level of importance we would like to see attached to them-this is the strongest argument we have for claiming Rangers have a unique relationship with them. It should be acknowledged that there have been failures to live up to these values-there is ample evidence of not even aspiring to-but this is all the more reason to reassert and reclaim. Suggesting this will cause division among a support that is notoriously fractious already strikes me as a generic argument for not doing anything in the Rangers community. On the contrary, I believe a document that distils and rationalises the sentiments that cause fans to feel Rangers is more than a club, could, in theory be a powerful bonding agent. It would also silence those critics who misleadingly suggest we don’t take any responsibility for our collective actions or culture.   

The other possible criteria for laying claim to being more than a club, and something shared with Celtic and Barcelona, is the pronounced political culture surrounding the club which was created and sustained by the fans. Rangers, to put it starkly, are associated with a popular, west of Scotland variety of British Unionism. Does this qualify Rangers for the title ‘more than a club’? What if you favour Scottish independence and can’t connect with this aspect of following Rangers? Does it reduce Rangers to the level of simply a club? What happens when certain narrow expressions of this culture result in sanctions and condemnation? Resolving these issues is more challenging than enshrining a set of values in a charter and such a document would probably be of limited use. On the other hand, being able to reference such a document might allow us to more clearly define the pros and cons of certain songs or chants using our own criteria.    

Some of those who remain to be convinced of the merit of the fan charter idea said that the club was enough to unify all Rangers fans and, to a certain extent at least, this is true. The club is the common denominator; the essential glue that holds together what is still, even in the social media age, an imagined community. But how can we reconcile this with the idea that Rangers are more than a club? It is in this ill-defined, abstract arena that the most serious splits and divisions are often born and sustained. I would argue that it isn’t possible to say that Rangers are more than a club, something I think most would, and at the same time say the club should be enough to unite us all and harmony should reign across the land. Clearly there is a whole other terrain of values and identities that need to be factored in and addressed. I would concede a little ground to those who say the adversity of the past year has united the Rangers support like never before. But I would also say this is likely to be a temporary state of affairs. Furthermore, I would like us to be united by something more satisfying than, for example, defying those perceived to be against us.

Being more than a club necessitates debates of this nature and probably makes unanimity of opinion impossible but it doesn’t necessarily mean things can’t be better than they are at the moment. More than a club? The real benefits will come from answering two harder questions: why and how do we express this belief?        

*I would like to dedicate this article to my friend Shane Nicholson of the Copland Road Organization who is probably preparing to thoroughly dismantle all of the arguments set out above.